Loud crowd helps Jets take off
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The MTS Centre in Winnipeg is the NHL's smallest arena. It just might be the loudest, too.
At least if you measure the noise level on a per-capita basis.
For while the decibel count likely gets a bit higher in venues such as Chicago's United Center or the Bell Centre in Montreal that seat 5,000 or 6,000 more fans than Winnipeg's arena, the passion (and lung capacity) of the MTS Centre crowd has few equals.
"It's a great atmosphere," Penguins winger Arron Asham said. "Like you're playing in a playoff game."
- Matchup: Penguins at Winnipeg Jets, 8:38 p.m. today, MTS Centre.
- TV, radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Ondrej Pavelec for Jets.
- Penguins: Will be trying to win three games in row for first time since five-game streak Oct. 18-27. ... RW James Neal has five goals in past six games after scoring two in previous 10. ... Are 6-0 when RW Craig Adams gets a point.
- Jets: Were 11-5-1 at home, including 2-1 victory Oct. 17 against Penguins, before facing Montreal Thursday night. ... LW Evander Kane entered Canadiens game with 10 goals in past 18 games . ... Own 5-2-2 record against Atlantic Division opponents.
- Hidden stat: Winnipeg is 0-4 in second game when playing on consecutive days.
That figures to be the case tonight, when the standard sellout crowd of 15,004 will show up to watch the Penguins take on the Jets.
The safest bet in that city at this time of year might be that the daytime high temperature won't make it to the sunny side of freezing, but a fan being shoehorned into every seat at the MTS Centre on game nights is a close second.
If the Penguins learned anything from a previous visit Oct. 17, it is that Winnipeg has embraced this team with the fervor of someone reunited with a lost love. Which, on some levels, the Jets are.
The original Jets were transplanted to Arizona in 1996, leaving Winnipeg without an NHL team -- and, it seemed, much of its identity -- until after last season.
That's when the Thrashers relocated from Atlanta, abandoning some intensely devoted fans. Just not enough of them to fill a municipal bus.
"Not a lot of people were at the game [in Atlanta]," Penguins center Jordan Staal said. "Or cared what happened at the game."
The situation couldn't be much more different in Winnipeg.
The Thrashers craved every bit of media attention they could attract in the hopes of selling the game and, perhaps, a few tickets.
In Winnipeg, everything associated with the franchise is subject to relentless scrutiny and incessant dissection by the press and public. Entire talk shows could be devoted to the tweaking of line combinations, and it still would be possible that "Gord from Steinbach" or "Cam from Portage la Prairie" wouldn't be able to get through to share his fervently held views on the subject.
"You could just feel it in the town that it was a hockey town," Staal said.
That the Jets are in a three-way tie for ninth in the Eastern Conference -- just one point out of a playoff position -- before a home game against Montreal Thursday night hasn't hurt local interest.
While it's hard to say whether Winnipeg will be able to qualify for postseason play, especially when Atlanta managed to do it just once during the franchise's entire stay there, the Penguins seem convinced that the Jets' public support could have a tangible payoff.
That the passion of Manitoba fans just might translate to enough extra points in the standings to allow Winnipeg to nudge past another club and, say, into a playoff spot.
"[Supportive, vocal fans] play a bigger role than a lot of people would be willing to admit," Penguins left winger Matt Cooke said. "To have a crowd that's behind you all the time and is loud and intimidating, that makes it a hard place to play. That affects other teams."
The crowd still was warming up when the Jets took a 1-0 lead in the Oct. 17 game.
Defenseman Zbynek Michalek lost his balance after the Penguins controlled the opening faceoff, triggering a sequence that ended with Kyle Wellwood beating Marc-Andre Fleury with a short backhander eight seconds into a 2-1Jets win.
"[Michalek] didn't have a great first shift," Asham said, chuckling. "Hopefully, [he]) stays on his feet this time, and we don't get scored on in the first 10 seconds."
That's a good idea, because the Jets were 11-5-1 on home ice before facing the Canadiens and have a lineup liberally sprinkled with quality talent such as Evander Kane, Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien.
"I think we underestimated how good the team is," Cooke said. "And how hard they were going to work."
The Penguins aren't likely to make that mistake again. Good thing, too, because even though Winnipeg's roster is a lot like the one the franchise had in Atlanta, much has changed for that team.
"Playing in Canada is different for these guys," Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis said.
"They have fans who are cheering for them and they're playing for something every night. Which is the way it should be."